The depth of the muse, imagination and technical mastery Stevie Wonder possesses and has shared with us for decades has never completely been plumbed. If you could fabricate a single artist out of Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, Mozart and James Brown, that artist would likely come out looking and sounding a lot like a certain blind keyboard player from Saginaw, Michigan, the one with endless imagination, fearless temperament and flawless execution.
He also has a tender side, one he’s displayed to the world since tackling the Ray Charles hit “(I'm Afraid) the Masquerade Is Over”…when he was 11 years old. Wonder grew up, of course, and provided us with a number of classic ballads from his own pen. Turn down the lights and let these five gorgeous cuts wash over you.
"You and I (We Can Conquer the World)": Midway through the first side of 1972’s Talking Book you’ll find this treasure, a ballad of love and fidelity - really, a criminally under-used wedding song (though Michael Evans did sing it at his sister Thelma’s wedding on Good Times). If you listen to it on headphones, you’ll notice the phased lead vocal, with right and left channels slightly out of sync, hovering just over Wonder’s bed of piano and synthesizer. Aural shenanigans aside, the song is prime-era Wonder - melodically sophisticated and texturally rich.
“They Won’t Go When I Go”: In any other hands, this proud evocation of one’s spirit connecting with a higher power might seem cloying or trite. Wonder sets the lyrics against an almost Baroque march and delivers a vocal that makes the spiritual core of the song more earthbound, more reachable. More human.
“All In Love Is Fair”: The opposite pole of "You and I (We Can Conquer the World)" - an admission that sometimes the love once present and thriving has withered away, leaving little but pain and confusion. “But all is changed with time,” he sings, “The future none can see / The road you leave behind / Ahead lies mystery.” It’s likely the saddest sentiment Wonder has written, delivered with both strength and vulnerability. Exquisite stuff.
“If It’s Magic”: Most folks know this as the song before “As” on Songs in the Key of Life. It’s cosmic thought-poetry with the great Dorothy Ashby on harp, the equivalent in song of the album’s trippy, spiraling cover. While inarguably the most “out there” of these ballads, it’s also arguably the simplest in form, melody and execution. Relax and let it take you where it wants; you’ll be glad you made the journey.
“Overjoyed”: Written for 1979’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (from which the song’s ploppy, tweety, natural noise percussion derives), Wonder held onto this almost magical plea for love until 1985’s In Square Circle. The orchestration of the album version expounded on the beauty of the melody, but at its core, it is a simple, simply gorgeous song.
BONUS: Wonder hosted Saturday Night Live in 1983 and performed the then-unreleased “Overjoyed” as part of his double duty as musical guest. Devoid of an orchestra or prerecorded nature sounds, one can still hear everything about the song that makes it special. Listen to it above.